Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Surprising Effectiveness of Bottle Cap Crampons

I was south of American Falls, ID about a week ago when travel conditions on the water gave me two choices: camp or portage. A 2PM finish didn't appeal to me, so I took to the road and set up Taj to haul the 240 pound trailered boat and gear. The bike is a helpful friend on long portages, provided there is no uphill. Even a 2-3% grade is impossible for more than a few hundred yards. Anything steeper requires that I walk the bike, and with steeper inclines I usually find myself horizontal to the ground with elbows locked and heels pointed skyward as I picture myself front pointing imaginary crampons into an ice wall.

The problem in this case was that a band of basalt cliffs pushed a highway so close to the river that it striped the lowlands of any non-highway road or trail- not even a frontage road on which to portage. So I hauled up on a road that ascended the cliffs looking for a detour around the highway. What I found was a seven mile dirt road with an 850 foot elevation gain in the second mile. The hard packed clay was coated in patches with sand and gravel such that every other step had me sliding out and driving a knee to the earth. No amount of effort could prevent it- my horizontal hauling technique was the only thing that could get the rig up a steep hill- with the suddenness of a bad fall on blue ice, my boot would kick out and the grinding pain of flesh being hammered into mineral shot up my thigh.

Knees being as important as they are, I stopped. After calming down and letting the sweat dry, I dug around in my glucose-starved brain for a solution to the day's Seventy-Third Significant Problem. I'll spare you the dramatic details of my eventual engineering, but an awl, some wire, a bit of Gorilla tape, one very large needle, dental floss, and a handful of bottle caps held the answer. I fastened two bottle caps, crimped face down, to the front pad of each sneaker as temporarily as I could. Just the afternoon before I had decided to start picking up trash on late afternoon road portages to pass the time and clean up the hilariously filthy rural Idahoan roadsides. So serendipitously I had a handful of old Budweiser caps in my boat- another stroke of luck.

I was shocked at how well it worked- rarely do ideas like this turn out so well. The bottle cap crampons bypassed the gravel and bit into the clay with each step, and I strained upwards like a Polar sledger on the Beardsmore. Soon I was looking out eastwards to the mountains from the top of a desert bluff. The dirt road fired arrow straight across the valley before me; I laughed at myself in the slanting sunshine of early evening and I reached down to cut the caps and floss out with a pen knife. Onwards, westwards.


The long push across western Idaho is now, finally, over. I arrived in Jackson, WY on Sunday afternoon and was quickly taken in by my friend Elyse. Soon after I was clean, fed, and drinking good beer on a couch. Heaven is made of such scenes. The next day she made me breakfast; I easily finished four bagels, seven eggs and a half pound of bacon without really pausing. So began my first day of rest since leaving Portland, Oregon fifty days and 1130 miles before.

And none too soon. The week preceding my arrival in Jackson was one of the hardest of the expedition thus far. It did not matter whether I was paddling, biking, or walking, in any method of locomotion my body cried out for rest ceaselessly. The part of the body in agony might change as the day went on, but the struggle was continuous. No amount of food satisfied- I would stop eating only when my stomach stopped stretching. With the first entry into the ramparts of the mountains, the fight was on in earnest. With the heat of the previous week, the snow had come off the hills and mountains in sheets and the river was over at 150% of its mean, charging downhill at 17,000 cubic feet per second. Outside of the reservoirs and meanders, I was forced to portage more often that I would have liked.

As in all things, the great effort & pain brought great reward. I left the procumbent geology and sapping heat of the river plain and was wrapped round in the glorious embrace of the Rockies. Pines ran up each successive ridge in increasing density, and soon the snow patches merged into unbroken bowls and fields at high elevation. The air seemed cleaner, more cool and of that singular scent most northerners relate to home. So it is with me. The water too I finally deemed clean enough to swim in, the farms, nuclear reactors, feedlots, and cities were all behind me. Arriving at Palisades Reservoir, I limped down to the cold water and plunged in, ecstatic with progress and the feeling of finally being in the mountains once again.


Now, I rest. The Continental Divide is only two days travel to the north, and here in downtown Jackson, Wyoming I have reached the end of Leg One of my journey across the North American continent. For the summer I will return to my job for a time, working 30-day backpacking and canoeing courses in the Yukon Territory until August. I will start the 4,000 mile drive North in a few days.

It dawned on as I was coming into Jackson that life is good when in your dreams, your work, and your vacations you are always doing the same thing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Zander's House of Pain

I will never do that again.

That's a lie, but I won't do it again for a while, anyway.

I was getting antsy, so I decided to push myself a little bit. To that end, I woke up early yesterday in Rupert, ID, and commenced on a day of travel that I intended not to end until this afternoon. I've been moving 55 minutes out of each hour for the last 35 hours. I've pedalled (20%), walked (20%), and paddled (60%) 132 miles since I woke up today, er, yesterday. Thats what its all about, right? Pushing yourself.

There are two quotations written in black ink on the thwart in front of my canoe seat. One says "Just keep moving, that's the secret." Verlen Kruger said that, the biggest bit of wisdom from his 100,000 mile paddling career. The other says "You are human." During the parade that followed a Roman general's campaign, a man was hired to ride in the chariot with the soldier, and later, Emperor. The man's sole job was to whisper those words, "You are human," to the Caesar every few seconds, keeping his pride in check.

I don't write well when I'm tired, so I'll end this one short. I can see the Tetons in the distance....I'm goin' to Jackson.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

El Toro, Mennomite Cinnamon Buns, and my New Friend Taj

Just the other day I was portaging along between two massive fields, one dotted with beef cattle, the other planted in potatoes. The day was warm, in the upper 70's with a hot, steady sun. I watched cows to pass the time and distance. I saw a cow licking its exhausted and reclining calf and mooing softly to it. Without breaking stride the cow dropped the afterbirth into the grass nearby. The calf's chest was rising and falling steady, alive.

Further on a larger calf had gotten itself stuck in the barbed wire fence, probably trying to follow its friend who had gotten through and was standing on the road's edge as if unsure of what to do with it's new found freedom. I kept on trucking until I reached the farmhouse a mile distant. Walking through the boneyard of dead trucks, rusting farm equipment, and barking dogs that characterize most properties in rural Idaho (rural America, really) I came to the run-down house to warn the farmer of the impending loss of two calfs, aka money on four hooves.

The farmer was Mexican, and neither he nor his daughter spoke any English. It was hot inside, we were all sweating as I tried to stumble through my explaination of the problem. I got the idea of the barbed wire fence across with my hands and a piece of p-cord, then got to the heart of the problem. I didn't know how to say 'cow' so I tried with the only four legged animal I knew: 'cabello' horse.

"El poco cabello es.." I made the sign language for fence again.

"No, no poco cabello senior," they looked at me like I was daft. They indicated the table, and some left over breakfast tortillas and a cold corn and bean salad. I sat, thinking. The calf had blood on its sides, mooing for its mother and struggle in the fence. My meager Spanish wasn't up to the task, and I doubt they'd follow me a mile up the road on foot. As I ate and we all smiled at each other without comphrension, it dawned on me. I could use my college eduation to solve this problem.

I jumped up and began pawing the ground angrily, then in a dramatic voice shouted, "El torro!" then indicated the fence sign. You see, the bottom shelf tequila most easily attainable where I went to college was called "El Torro" and had a picture of a bull on it. Same species, they might get it.

The daughter shouted, the farmer shot to his feet and unlocked a cabinet by the door, then flung open the side door with shotgun in hand and began marching towards his truck. He thought a bull had broken into the paddock with the cows and newborns and was running amok. I stopped him in his truck, getting down on hands and knees and saying "Pequeno torro! Poco Torro!" He finally got the idea when I ran to a nearby fence and tangled myself in it, shouting "Pequeno torro!" across the yard. He smiled, put away the gun and drove off to settle affairs in the paddock.


It's been hot lately. The temperature hit 97 degrees yesterday, and today is supposed to be warm as well. In the farmland of southern Idaho where I am, one can travel for twenty miles without seeing any shade or public ground. I was portaging last week in just such a situation, sweating intensely, when I came on a little old Mennonite woman selling baked goods on the side of the road. A mirage, I scoffed. She said hello, and offered me some cinnamon rolls, which I readily accepted.

Seventy-five cents got me 8 buns the size of softballs. We chatted about being Mennonite in rural Idaho, and I told her stories about the Mennonite men whooping my ass in climbing Katahdin in Maine, they in their loafers, woolen trousers and dress shirts sprinting up the rockslides. We talked about religion, about baking, and my trip. I was distracted for a moment, as her granddaughter, a stunningly beautiful girl in an ankle-length home sewn floral dress and bonnet attended to the garden and eventually climbed into a beat-up white Ford pick-up and drove off, smiling at me as I stuffed cinnamon buns into my mouth.


It has been an interesting week since last I wrote. In Weiser (Weezer) I got to scheming again, with wonderful results. The lack of camping along the river, the horrendous current, and the insane number of snakes, as well as my painfully slow progress all convinced me I had to figure some new methods and generally step it up if I wanted to make it to the Continental Divide by June. From Hell's Canyon Dam to Weiser I had made about 24 miles a day, got into camp at a reasonable hour and while I was working hard 8 or 9 hours a day, the struggle had left the equation.

I realized my mind and body had caught up with my aggresive pace. I was in good shape and was meeting great challenges with growing comfort. It was time, of course, to kick it up a notch. With the extra hour or two of daylight I was now getting with the advance of spring and the crossing of the time zone, I decided I needed to travel more each day, and to travel harder. I was ready, but a bit hesitant about the whole thing.

Next, I went back to the Weiser library and got on Craigslist to look for a bike. I looked through 500 listings before I found one even remotely close to the tiny town of Weiser, that for a small woman's AutoBike. On a wing and a prayer I made the phone call. He man who answered was gruff and kept reminding me it was a women's bike. I had caught him just moments before he was walking out the door for the day. He agreed to bring the bike in, he lived only a half mile from the library. He arrived a few minutes later with two bikes; the small and unacceptable AutoBike, but also a beat up old Scott. I paid him $30 for the Scott; all this in under 30 minutes of getting to the library. I laugh at my own luck sometimes- for all of those chance occurances to come together in my favor.... amazing.

I spent the afternoon fixing and tinkering, then talking my way into a machine shop to fabricate a trailer. I had grand designs, all beautiful and well-engineered, but I realized I couldn't fix most of the parts if they broke, so I kept it simple so I could easily repair the trailer in the field. $1.20 at the hardward store and access to the dumpster behind the shop gave me what I needed, and I pedaled out of Weiser smiling like an idiot at my good fortune.

For the last week, I've managed to keep it up. I'll paddle for eight or nine hours and then portage a bit in the late afternoon. The bike and trailer set-up is solid, but a bit finicky. It won't go up any kind of hill or turn much for that matter, but it helps me get around waterfalls, dams, and heavy rapids just a bit faster.

In keeping with my lonely personification of inanimate objects, I've named the bike Taj. As in, 'Poor Taj', a subtle jab at Canadian pronuniation.

About 880 miles and 50 days down, with 190 miles to Jackson, Wyoming and hopefully my first rest day!

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Shitty Way Around

Back in Lewiston, I schemed. I love schemeing, and I'm good at it, but this time around I could find no real way of getting my boat and myself around the Canyon. After eight days of travel, I was back where I had started. I searched the town, made a hundred phone calls, even tried hitchhiking- but with a 16' canoe, hitching isn't going to get you very far.

I retreated to a campground outside of town, down and out after nearly an entire day of head ends and frustrated efforts. My expedition was doomed, Hell's Canyon had defeated me, I couldn't portage 250 miles by road over the mountains. I could store the boat and fly home, my trip shatted. But then, a horse walked by, and it shat on the grass next to my tent.

I looked up, hopeless.

At the far edge of the campground, dozens of horses, cowboys, and trailers sat, a small round-up. I started walking over, but then stopped and ran back to my site and dug through my pack to the plastic bag at the bottom, holding my clean change of clothes. I put on my American flag shirt, emblazoned with the letters 'USA under the waving flag.

I was passed from group to group, each now in the tailgating phase of the event. I talked to dozens. I schmoozed cowboys and teenaged equestrians, riders and breeders. Within an hour, I found someone headed south, and, yep, they had two trailers and could shuffle the horses. If I didn't mind riding in the back, no.... A canoe? What in the hell?

The next morning, my boat resting in a bit of dry horse shit in the trailer and me hovering on a pile of gear next to it, we set out over the mountains. Five hours later, they dropped me off on the side of the road. From the high plateau between the mountains, it was only a twenty mile portage back to the river. I paddled downstream all day and the next to the dam, and walked as far as I could before cliffs blocked the way. Around the bend, the muted roar of Granite Rapid could be heard. (

I retreated back to Hell's Canyon Dam and retraced my strokes to Brownlee Dam. Then, onward. Only a short break in travel, and a major concession in my trip. The letter of the mandate I had set for myself had been violated, a hiccup in the human-powered crossing of North America. But the spirit remained, I hoped. With effort, it could remain.

No One in Weiser Listens to Weezer

Greetings from Weiser, ID. I bought a large pizza for lunch, and as with nearly everyone in this tiny town, the girl running to register told me she didn't recognize me and asked where I was from and what I was doing in Weiser. I explained, and told her I was just passing through 'Wiser'.

"Oh no, its Weee-zer, deary."

"Ah, like the band." I said. Blank look. "You know, the band Weezer. Singer is Rivers Cuomo." Another blank look. I sang a few lines from the songs 'Buddy Holly' & 'Hash Pipe'. Her brow furrowed in deep thought, she crossed her eyes at me, shook her head and handed me my pizza.

"Must be an Eastern thing."

As you may have guessed, no one in Weiser listens to Weezer.


As usual, I report from a public library in a small town. To my left, a dusty caked farmer in cowboy boots with a Milt's Feed and Grain trucker hat; to my right, a young mother teaching her sons how to Google. Behind me, the periodical racks, where someone has neatly written "Magazines" over the word 'Periodicals'. Nearby, the Teen Space, full of young adult books and CDs, as well as magazines of their own. 'Teen People', of course, as well as 'Seventeen' and 'Cosomo-Girl', but also 'Modern Bride' and 'Your Wedding'. That bridal magazines adorn the shelves of the teens-only library zone, I guess shows you that this town is in touch with its reality.

I have to say that Weiser is probably my favorite town yet. Polite and helpful people are everywhere, and curious in a way most others haven't been. It seems Westerners have pretty effectively bred out their curiousity in most areas- here, it survives. Within two blocks of the library I found a supermarket, hardware store, and best of all, a good used book store. The angels sang; I've been firing through books, finishing about one every five days. I just finished "Undaunted Courage" by Stephan Ambrose, as well as "Standing up to the Rock" by Louise Freeman-Toole and "River of the West" by Robert Clark. All highly reccomended.

I pass now into southern Idaho, a land of occasional canyons with farmland starting at their rim and extend for hundreds of miles. Land her is either Bureau of Land Management or is private- private in the 'I'll shoot you if you trespass' manner of the world. A farmer on an ATV actually said that to me the other day, but he was much more polite about it. Still, his four-wheeler did have a gun rack.

The current is strong here, and the river is rising everyday. The reservoirs and irrigation canals that blanket southern Idaho are quickly filling up, and soon the river will be in flood. A ranger at Farewell Bend pointed down to the river and then to the high-water mark on the bluff at our feet. He said that in ten days he wouldn't be surprised if the river hit that mark, meaning a rise of thirty feet. I pause now to plan. Fighting the current as it is brutal, the banks are overgrown and eddies nonexistent. There are almost no campsites in the next 300 miles. A few RV parks, boat ramps, and isolated stretches of canyons are my only options, unless the reality on the ground is different from what my maps and research tell me. So I pause and plan, thinking of solutions to the problems that I face. So has it been, as so will it continue to be.

Halfway to Hell's Heart

I had left Lewiston full of trepidation at the path before me, at its challenges both real and imagined. In my planning, the ascent of the Snake River through the Canyon- the deepest in North America- consumed and undule amount of time and energy. I feared that on the ground and in the water it would do the same.

The current just a mile upstream from Lewiston was almost impassable, running at almost 7 knots. Gradually, the current grew stronger and began to pass over cobble bars and form riffles, and soon, rapids. As I fought my way upstream, sometimes earning only a mile every two hours, the rapids grew larger and the canyon walls steeper. Near Heller Bar I left the dirt road behind, and near Cache Creek the last of the boat accessed camps. The walls only grew steeper and the river more powerful. The eddies I had counted on were not there, where basic hydrology would dictate that an eddy should form, only a howling, boiling current.

In the first ten miles of my ascent, the river reaches a depth of almost 140 feet. I would be inching across a flat stretch of current, and then be lifted 4-5 inches above the river as a mushroom cloud of water the size of a pick-up boiled up from the depths. Further upstream, these boils would grow so large and powerful that whirpools a foot or two deep would spin the boat, then a new current would throw the bow into the main body of the river and I would be washed down, losing a half mile of hard-fought progress. The river was big and it was fast, a willful and intense creature.

I labored for a week, earning a paltry distance and a fatigue as deep as any I have ever felt. The rapids I lined or portaged were getting larger- the flow sure to increase as spring wore on. The most conservative method of ascent in some cases had me balanced precariously on a rocky ledge ten feet over a churning drop, the painter lines clutched tightly in each hand. At one point I had forty feet of line out, the boat secured with a slippery mooring hitch so I could climb- actually rock climb- up and over to haul the knot out from forty feet upstream and track the boat to calmer water. In short, the risks I was running were beginning to get away from me. What I couldn't managing, I was struggling to mitigate, but even that was stretching it.

Heavy rain and wind took its toll, as did the tracking and wading in thick brush- each night I would retire soaked to the skin, my flesh sodden as only days of rain and wet can do. In all, I was tired, but I was having fun. This was the immense struggle I had sought, in some twisted way, but the reality of the situation was that I had no business continuing on. It was not a hard decision to make- my judgement told me I had to turn back, but it was a decision I did not want to make. I had talked maps with a group of rafters, they indicated places where the rising water had reached sheer canyon walls. It would be almost impassable - almost. But then, around mid-day on a rare partially cloudy day of hard upstream tracking, my old friend The Ghost of Decisions Past came out from the ether I made an early camp to talk with him.

The time had come, obviously. I knew my route goes. I also knew that I could do it. But, as the Ghost reminded me, I shouldn't. Maybe someday with a dedicated team and in the lower water of autumn, but not here, not now, and not alone. I had made a promise to my mother pertaining to safety, and while nothing I was doing was 'safe' I had sought always to keep my promise in my own way, and to return, six months hence, a tired but happy boy still in possession of a pulse.

The next morning I hiked upstream from camp with a full pack and tarp and walked for a day and half, just to see more of the canyon. The rapids below continuted to grow, as I was happy, if wistful, about my decision. Two morning's later, I loaded my boat and peeled out, headed downstream.

It took me 5 hours of lining and paddling on the ten knot current to undo a week of the hardest labor. I arrived back in Lewiston on what I thought was Mother's Day (I was a week early) and called my mother to tell her I had kept my promise.

As always, all text and images Copyright 2009 Alexander B. Martin